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Can Atheists Appreciate Chesterton?

Empirically, yes.

Friday was the anniversary of Chesterton’s death, the religious blogosphere is eulogizing him, and I thought I’d join in. I enjoyed and recommend Chesterton’s novels, especially The Man Who Was Thursday and Napoleon of Notting Hill, his works of nonfiction like Heretics, and even his poems (all of these are links to freely available fulltext versions online).

Classical philosophy holds that evil is merely the absence of good, but for me, at least, the opposite reduction is more tempting (albeit just as wrong). Evil is extremely obvious – you can look at people involved in animal cruelty, or bullying, or whatever, and you can almost see the actively malicious force animating them onward. On the other hand, good is most easily perceived as unusual skill at avoiding evil. Vegetarians are unusually good because they take extra effort to avoid hurting animals, people who donate to charity are unusually good because they take extra effort to avoid greed.

I credit three authors with giving me a visceral understanding of active, presence-rather-than-absence Good: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and Jacqueline Carey. Two of those are very religious and write quite consciously from a Christian perspective. The third writes about kinky sex. Go figure.

But actually when I think about it more closely, the moral beauty in Carey’s writing comes mostly from her constructed religion, which is suspiciously similar to Christianity. So it seems that there’s a fact to be explained here.

Can an atheist appreciate Chesterton? A better question might be whether an atheist can happily appreciate Chesterton as offering a beauty that she, too, can partake in, or whether the appreciation must be along the lines of “Yup, these are the nice things we can’t have.”

Keep The Horse Before The Cart

So I think an important point to make before going any further is that, through 90% of Christian history G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis probably would have been burnt at the stake.

Not just for denominational reasons, although that would have been enough. Promoting joy as a sign of sanctity and as a proper state for man – that’s a burning for the Epicurean heresy right there. Believing righteous non-Christians could get into Heaven – that’s a burning. A suggestion that that humor and lightness were chief attributes of God and the angels – more burning. Doubting the literal truth of some of the Old Testament? Uncertainty whether the New Testament was divinely inspired in a more-than-metaphorical all-great-art-is-divinely-inspired way? Claims that praying sincerely to false gods was praiseworthy and basically just another way of praying to God? Burning, burning, burning.

The moral qualities that shine in Lewis and Chesterton – joy, humor, a love of the natural world, humanity, compassion, tolerance, willingness to engage with reason – are all qualities they inherited from modernity which would be repugnant to many of their Christian predecessors. They are all totally within the milieu of early 20th century England and totally foreign to medieval Italy or ancient Judea.

St. Augustine could not have written The Great Divorce, because while Lewis was talking about how the blessed in Heaven suffer great hardship to meet the damned in order to radiate love and wisdom at them and help bring them to Heaven, Augustine was writing about how the greatest pleasure of the blessed was getting to watch the tortures of the damned, metaphorically munching popcorn as they delighted in sinners getting what they deserved. Tertullian didn’t even wait until after he died to start getting delighted, famously saying that:

“At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sages and philosophers blushing in red-hot fires with their deluded pupils; so many tragedians more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings; so many dancers tripping more nimbly from anguish then ever before from applause.”

What Lewis, Augustine, and Tertullian had in common was Christianity; what set Lewis apart was modernity. What made C. S. Lewis saintly, as opposed to the horrifying sadists who actually got the “St.” in front of their names, was the perspective of a culture that had just spent a few centuries thinking about morals from a humanistic perspective.

When Pope Francis said that we need to build a “culture of life” that can protect innocent children from harm, he wasn’t taking a revelation from the Biblical angels but from the Better Angels Of Our Nature. The Biblical angels are the ones who would be tasked with enforcing God’s promise of blessing on anyone who takes Babylonian infants and smashes them against rocks (Psalm 137:9, look it up).

During the tradition from the Dark Ages to modernity, people got technologies like the printing press and the frigate and started learning more about other cultures, seeing that they were decent people and that no one religion had a monopoly on morality. The decline in infectious diseases banished death from an everyday presence to a lurking evil and made casual slaughter seem less appealing; the gradual decline in war resensitized people to violence. And all this time there were philosophers inventing things like deontology and consequentialism and freedom and equality and humanism and saying that yes, people did have inherent moral worth. And religion eventually decided that if it couldn’t beat them it might as well join them, at least to a degree, and it was this concession that allowed the moral decrepitude of people like Tertullian and Torquemada to evolve into the moral genius of people like Chesterton and Lewis.

So my thesis is that Lewis and Chesterton didn’t become brilliant moralists by revealing the truths of Christianity to a degraded modern world. They became great moralists by taking the better parts of the modern world, dressing them up in Christian clothing, and handing them back to the modern world, all while denouncing the worse parts of the modern world as “the modern world”.

And so rah humanism and all that. But the original question remains: what is it about the Christian clothing that is such a necessary ingredient?

A Cupboard Full Of Secret Ingredients

First of all, the power of myth.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all three of the people I named as influences on my sense of moral beauty were writers of speculative fiction. Fiction has greater opportunity to be beautiful and to show complicated internal dynamics of humanity than abstruse philosophy or dry preaching does, and speculative fiction has a better opportunity to present superstimuli, including moral superstimuli. I think that people who write speculative fiction ordinarily tend to be kind of dismissed, but that because Lewis and Chesterton were working from within a tradition that had its own myths, they managed to get through the filter of “Oh, it’s just fantasy, ignore it”. Narnia was dignified by being a metaphor for the Bible, which earned its dignity through hoary age and civilizational influence.

Second of all, legitimacy.

I sometimes write about morality. It tends to be in a light-hearted “here’s what I think” style, first of all because I’m genuinely uncertain about a lot of stuff, second of all because I don’t want to sound preachy. Religion is really good at helping people be certain of things, and religious people get a free pass to sound preachy because preaching is what religions are supposed to do.

I don’t think there’s a niche for non-religious versions of Chesterton and Lewis. There are people like that New York Times ethics columnist who talk about ethics, but I think if they were to start getting poetic about it, people would start challenging their right, be like “Who told you what is or isn’t necessary for the integrity of the human spirit?” This is a tough question. But Lewis and Chesterton have a great answer: “God did”. They can, as the Bible puts it, “speak like one who has confidence”.

Third of all, a different perspective.

You can seem deep just by saying something different than everyone else does. I don’t think Lewis and Chesterton were too far from the modern moral mainstream, but I think they use a completely different aesthetic. Where most people talk about the bravery of defying the mainstream, a Christian writer can talk about the bravery of not defying the mainstream when everyone thinks you should. Where most people talk about the importance of high self-esteem, a Christian writer can talk about taking care to avoid pride. Both sides have valid and important insights, but if a culture is doing everything it can to saturate you with one of them, the other will be a powerful breath of fresh air.

Chesterton – I haven’t yet noticed this in Lewis – has this sort of gambit where he agrees with some modern virtue, and then says the correct way to attain the modern virtue is through doing the opposite of the modern virtue. Or maybe the opposite, where he agrees with what we should be doing, but then says the end goal is exactly the opposite of what everyone would think:

The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom.

People make fun of this, and rightly so (Steven Kaas attributes to Chesterton’s dog the quote “Arf arf arf! Not because arf arf! But exactly because arf NOT arf!”) but I think it is fundamental to his project. He gets to maintain his belief in modern virtues while getting there through an unexpected path that seems deep and profound and unexpected.

Fourth of all, a focus on the individual.

Despite everything everyone says about modern society being too individualistic, there seems to be a sense in which the opposite is true. The problems we are comfortable talking about are ones like racism, sexism, income inequality, terrorism, crime. Social problems. Problems in the community. The idea of talking about what goes on in the individual soul, of having strong opinions about it, isn’t a very modern sensibility at all. The only exception are psychologists and therapists, who really want to be scientific and so scrupulously avoid sounding poetic.

I could come up with some just-so stories about why this is – we like to think scientifically, but intrapersonal dilemmas don’t lend themselves to this kind of analysis? Focus on individuals doesn’t generalize well, which is a problem in the age of mass media? Christians were abnormally obsessed with the individual soul because of virtue ethics + the idea of damnation and salvation? I’m not sure. Anyway, religion has a head start on individualist vocabulary and thought processes which non-religion doesn’t really have good alternatives for (PSYCHODYNAMICS DOES NOT COUNT AS A GOOD ALTERNATIVE).

All of these are kind of banal and not the sort of thing that could prevent an atheist from fully appreciating Chesterton. But then there’s the big one.

What Lewis, Chesterton, and Carey have in common is this belief in Good as an active, vibrant, force, in Good being not just powerful, but so powerful that it’s kind of terrifying. As something not just real, but the most real thing.

Atheists can have Good be terrifying – utilitarianism has broken much stronger minds than my own – but it’s really hard to have it be real. I’m not saying atheists can’t believe in Good, just that atheist good is a sort of – I hate this term but I’ll use it anyway – social construct. It’s real in the same sense the US Government is real. The US Government is certainly powerful – just ask any Iraqi. But it’s not one thing, with an essence and a personality and angel wings of red-white-and-blue fire. It’s just an abstraction over a lot of ordinary people doing their thing.

And this would seem to be the death blow for atheists having something as strong and convincing as a Lewisian or Chestertonian world-view. Except that I kind of picked up a similar vibe from Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I didn’t think of it when I was naming the three authors who first made me think of Good as a thing, but it is another work that portrays Good as this burning, all-powerful force, and although it has some magic in it, it doesn’t go all the way to reinventing Christianity like Carey does.

I’m not sure whether this is sleight-of-pen, whether it only works because of the magic there because even if the magic and morality aren’t explicitly linked it still triggers sort of morality-is-magic circuits. Or whether it only works if you’re literally responsible for saving the world. But it seems encouraging.

I think the truth of Lewis and Chesterton is not only appreciatable by atheists but derives from humanist ideas. The beauty of Lewis and Chesterton I’m not sure about, but I maintain some hope that it can be saved as well, even if I’m not sure how to do it.

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37 Responses to Can Atheists Appreciate Chesterton?

  1. suntzuanime says:

    For what it’s worth, my biggest criticism of HPMOR is that the main character gets super magic powers from agreeing with the author’s politics.

    • von Kalifornen says:

      … You mean the anti-deathism? That’s the only one I can think of.

      • Earnest Peer says:

        The anti-deathism is *really strong* though.

        Also reductionism, which gives Harry the power of partial transfiguration.

        • von Kalifornen says:

          The reductionism is pretty much a statement about real life. The antideathism, more subjective. But neither are entirely political at all.

      • suntzuanime says:

        Yeah, that. That’s the only point in the story I can think of “good” being portrayed as an all-powerful force. It’s also the weakest point of the story, for me.

        But then I’m not a huge Lewis or Chesterton fan either so maybe I’m just defective when it comes to the worship of grand moral philosophization.

  2. houseboatonstyx says:

    Have you seen the Appendix to Lewis THE ABOLITION OF MAN? Eight or thirteen moral precepts forming a system, a nice mix of utility and deontology.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Just took a look. His precepts are all like “General Beneficence”. That’s, like medical ethics level of vague!

  3. Deiseach says:

    I will always not hit over the head with a hammer anyone who loves “The Man Who Was Thursday”, so I’ll leave it at that, Scott 🙂

  4. von Kalifornen says:

    I’d actually add that the maintenance of these old truths and beauties in a modern world is somewhat underappreciated outside of a certain mindset, which is unfortunate because it would improve the acceptance of the modern world.

  5. Sarah says:

    I think the critical thing about Lewis is that he had a religious experience himself. As a child, running away from bullies, he found a meadow, and experienced something he called The Joy. A transcendent, very real experience of the sublime.

    I also had The Joy. Also after running away from bullies, at about the same age. Of course, I thought it had nothing AT ALL to do with religion, because I was Jewish, and the tradition I was raised in had no mystical element. If I had been raised Catholic I might have thought I was like St Theresa.

    I don’t know how peak experiences work, but they’re a human phenomenon, not a Christian one. And those of us who have them, especially in childhood, have a need to develop a theory (implicit or explicit) about why everyone else goes around totally crass and unappreciative of this sublime experience. What *is* that Joy, and what does it mean? it can’t mean nothing. It *is* meaning.

    Christianity (for converts like Lewis and Chesterton) is a frame to put around that experience; steelmanned Christianity is credible enough to worry many a rational atheist.

    • grendelkhan says:

      Sounds like the oceanic feeling. I didn’t know what that really meant until I read “Oceanic” (short story, available at the link, very much worth it), and I wondered about how I would have reacted if I’d been faced with that experience as a child.

      As it happened, when I reached my late teens I was surprised to hear about people talking about their religious belief bringing them great happiness (I thought it was just something that made you feel guilty about sex), and I spent my formative years reading Hofstadter and internalizing reductionism, so even if I did have that kind of experience, it’d be some kind of mushy one-with-the-universe thing, which I sort-of got reading The Ancestor’s Tale anyway.

  6. One idea of Chesterton’s that atheists tend to appreciate is his parable of the fence, which can be seen as a prologue to the works of Friedrich Hayek. This is not a virtue, but it is one of his important contributions to the culture.

    The moral qualities that shine in Lewis and Chesterton – joy, humor, a love of the natural world, humanity, compassion, tolerance, willingness to engage with reason – are all qualities they inherited from modernity which would be repugnant to many of their Christian predecessors.

    .

    I wouldn’t be so sure that these things were repugnant to Tertullian. He was writing to persuade and perhaps his milieu was openly skeptical of love and tolerance, in comparison to status competition and pugnacity, as human motivations.

    A weakness of the moderns is their contrived sentimentality. Some may truly desire to radiate love and tolerance, but a more typical motivation is:

    “How shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many intolerant people groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness…”

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all three of the people I named as influences on my sense of moral beauty were writers of speculative fiction. Fiction has greater opportunity to be beautiful and to show complicated internal dynamics of humanity than abstruse philosophy or dry preaching does, and speculative fiction has a better opportunity to present superstimuli, including moral superstimuli.

    The two authors who have most shaped my virtue ethics are Philip K Dick and Neil Peart. The power of fiction, poetry, film and music is that by convention, artists are allowed to depict their perceptions in perfect detail. Non-fiction prose can be just as lucid about fundamental virtues, but for better or worse it is difficult to impress an audience that way. Thomas De Quincey is the only example that comes to mind.

    Religion is really good at helping people be certain of things, and religious people get a free pass to sound preachy because preaching is what religions are supposed to do.

    Legitimacy is a good word to describe the power of religion. This is true of moral authorities in the sense that you describe, and also of social relationships.

    Consider the TV show Twin Peaks. The MacGuffin is the murder of Laura Palmer, but the show’s attraction is its quirky, mysterious characters in a small American town. The MacGuffin need never have been resolved, but once it was the show promptly fell apart. There is an important difference in the relationship between viewers and show, depending on whether it is explicitly or implicitly about X.

    God is a MacGuffin. A lot of people want to be around near-strangers, sing songs and be told how to live their lives. There is much difference between going to church “to worship God”, and going to atheist church for explicit social purposes. I think atheists have yet to solve this Schellingian problem.

    What Lewis, Chesterton, and Carey have in common is this belief in Good as an active, vibrant, force, in Good being not just powerful, but so powerful that it’s kind of terrifying. As something not just real, but the most real thing.

    I also get the same vibe from HP:MoR. However, it rang false for me. The inspiring part of that book is its celebration of the lawful Universe, and not anti-deathism.

    Children’s fiction and science fiction are, by convention, the only genres that routinely deal with such important questions. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials portrays sapience as the active, vibrant and terrifying force. Philip K Dick portrays the Universe’s active, vibrant and terrifying force as amoral; the clearest depiction is in his short story, “Faith of our Fathers”. I prefer both these perspectives to Yudkowsky’s, and I think they are compatible on different levels.

  7. Gilbert says:

    Both Christianity and modernism are ambiguous big things. I think your discontinuity between the two traditions comes from taking the good parts of one and the bad parts of the other as representative of the whole tradition. For example Tertullian was his age’s penalty hawk and eventually went with the Montanist heresy, because he thought the Church wasn’t hard enough on sinners. Also there are loads of church fathers both for and against joy and usually meaning different things, the big witch burnings actually were an early modern thing, etc. And the modern side of course also includes the invention of totalitarianism. Using the same unfair argument template inversely, one could say modernity is what C.S. Lewis and Stalin had in common, with Christianity being the distinguishing factor.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      You’re right, the actual words of the argument as written don’t prove anything.

      But I do think it’s correct to say there has been a non-absolute but very noticeable statistical trend towards things like happiness-as-good, humor-as-good, violence-as-bad, torture-as-bad and so on in modern times and that Lewis and Chesterton are heirs to this trend.

      • Mary says:

        Augustine took it for granted that happiness was good:
        “Indeed, man wishes to be happy even when he so lives as to make happiness impossible.”

        As for violence being bad, his observation about War and Peace was “Peace and War had a competition in cruelty; and Peace won the prize.” City of God is scathing about the violence of the City of Man.

      • Gilbert says:

        Yup, but that trend doesn’t start at the printing press, it starts somewhere in Old Testament times and then gains steam at Golgotha.

  8. St. Rev says:

    I suspect that what gives Good-As-Real its power is the same thing that makes teleology work: the human penchant for anthropomorphizing events. Humans have a lot of wetware devoted to conceptualizing and tracking other humans; if you can present your memeplex in a way that engages those systems, you potentially have many more routes of infection.

  9. Eliezer Yudkowsky says:

    I’m interested by your experience with Carey because that sounds like it might contradict my prior theory of the literary expression of Good. Can you amplify?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Not well, because I read her a long time ago, but I was especially impressed with Kushiel’s Avatar, all these kings and barbarian warlords laughing “You worship a god of love? That’s so dumb, we worship gods of blood and pain who could tear your head off with a single bite.” And then three hundred pages later, Phedre has managed to get the god of blood and pain’s temple torn down and his priests killed in ways that subtly but unmistakably trace to the power of love and the fact that she is a good person who holds strong to what she believes in.

      • Eliezer Yudkowsky says:

        Hm.

        My previous literary theory was that for pure Good to be a powerful, active, as you put it terrifying force, it must be opposed to a state of evil – not pure evil, necessarily, but very great evil – so that all the parts of Good (Frankena’s List) are aligned into a single pure will of opposition, the cry of the phoenix. Most people incorrectly regard their current civilization as being in something like a state of moral equilibrium in which most of their surroundings are basically okay, and so in their mental world most moral decisions come with moral tradeoffs, so that the parts of Good are not aligned in their advice.

        But when I think of the Good of Phedre no Delaunay it doesn’t actually seem to fit that theory. She can do quiet Good while raising a child, or on a quest to rescue Hyacinth, without much in the way of Evil opposition, and it’s still Good.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I did cite her struggle against that one supremely evil Zoroastrian guy as her best moment. But Great Divorce seems like a clear example of displaying powerful good without equally powerful evil to me.

  10. Brett says:

    Doubting the literal truth of some of the Old Testament?

    You are aware, I hope, that St. Augustine not only entertained such doubts but wrote entire books about them, yes? Your ideas about what would get people burned for heresy are baffling in general, but this one is so blatantly wrong that I felt the error needed to be pointed out. If you’re interested in the medieval relationship with reason and natural philosophy, I strongly recommend reading the atheist medievalist Tim O’Neill, who writes about this sort of thing quite often at his blog and on Quora, specifically to counteract anti-historical ideas like this.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “Your ideas about what would get people burned for heresy are baffling in general, but this one is so blatantly wrong that I felt the error needed to be pointed out.”

      Lucilio Vanini had his tongue cut out and was burnt at the stake for heresy after publishing a book saying that people evolved from apes (okay, that black people evolved from apes, a poster boy for modern liberal tolerance he was not). To be fair, his persecutors accused him of being an atheist too, and he probably was an atheist, but he claimed he wasn’t and the book was used as evidence.

      Bernard Palissy claimed that fossils were ancient animals and Earth was older than generally believed. Thrown into prison and scheduled for a stake-burning, but the stake burning was cancelled in favor of holding him in prison indefinitely. Other sources say that this was for being a Protestant and that his fossil-views were just icing on the cake, but Lewis was a Protestant too so it all checks out.

      Isaac La Peyrere claimed that there were humans other than Adam and that different races are descended from them. His books were burned and he was imprisoned until he recanted, which he did.

      I’ll check out Tim O’Neill’s blog; thank you for the recommendation.

      • Brett says:

        Yes, people were executed for heresy, often in quite nasty ways. I do not dispute this. But I do not believe you have a proper understanding of what was and was not considered to be a heresy. Questioning the literal interpretation of Scripture, in particular, was never considered a heresy. As I said, St. Augustine wrote three books on how to interpret Genesis.

      • Brett says:

        And I do hope you check out Tim O’Neill! He writes about medieval history like you would expect from, say, a Westerner writing about Confucianism: like a historian, rather than a partisan. I’ve learned a lot of good history and got some good book recommendations from him.

  11. Daniel Speyer says:

    Is “Christian clothing” really a fair description of Christianity’s influence on those writers? Take Lewis’s discussion of humility in The Screwtape Letters. That doesn’t seem like something that would be written without a large dose of Christian memes.

  12. Michael Vassar says:

    Bayesianism seems to me to contain the attitude that ignorance and the possibility of reducing it is the most real thing. That seems sort-of related, and is a very live thought in HPMOR.

  13. Mary says:

    Justin Martyr, BTW, thought Socrates and Heraclitus got into Heaven.

    One notes that Lewis did not believe that non-believers could get into Heaven by good works. He thought the saving power of Christ might be applied in some extraordinary means, when invicible ignorance and circumstance were applicable, as opposed to the common and ordinary means.

  14. Mary says:

    I also observe that Thomas Aquinas was not burnt at the stake, and yet he carefully distinguished between rejoicing in the sufferings of the damned, which would be repugnant, and rejoicing in them as evidence of divine justice.

    A view that one can hope many people hold today, because you can certainly read many, many, many people rejoicing at the death of their enemies and exulting in their damnation with a confidence that the Church would regard as very ill-founded. (Some, alas, make it very clear that they are explicitly rejoicing in the suffering of those who dissented from them, not from the justice that would require it if they were doing wrong by that dissent.)

    • Randy M says:

      Yes, you see this on the right when a terrorist leader dies, or the left when well known marginally sucessful right-wing politicians die.

  15. Paul Torek says:

    Don’t hate on the term “social construct”. It has its uses, such as your very apt one. And its abuses, sure – but avoiding abused terms would practically gag us.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Yes, agreed.

      Also, this is entirely tangential, but Razib Khan makes the interesting point that in some contexts, the notion of “dominance” (in the genetic sense) is a social construct. (Specifically, this occurs when the possible values of the affected trait are binned in socially-constructed ways.)

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  18. Are you aware of Strange Notions? It’s a Catholic run site that bills itself as the premiere meeting place for atheists and Catholics, but then weirdly runs all Catholic articles (with a single atheist article once). When challenged on this, the proprietor claims that he can’t get atheists to contribute (among other reasons, like “the Speaker of the House has to belong to one of the parties” and “Catholics are presenting the positive case so the atheists just have to rebut in comments”).

    Would you consider putting this excellent article forward for publication on Strange Notions, Scott?

  19. Kaj Sotala says:

    The idea of talking about what goes on in the individual soul, of having strong opinions about it, isn’t a very modern sensibility at all.

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by this. Could you elaborate?

  20. Diogenes Teufelsdrockh says:

    Someone should rewrite “Thursday” so it’s about a group of reactionaries who are all secretly liberals.